In August of 2016 I finished building my first street organ.  I took it out in public and all I seemed to hear from people was “Where’s the monkey?”.  So, I went to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and purchased a small stuffed monkey and animated it and put it on top of the organ.  This seemed to satisfy people.  Finally, they could relax and listen to the organ music.

I play my street organ in public at least several times a month, and I keep a log book with the organ…where I play, for how long, misc notations about the venue, and I also keep track of repairs that I make.  I’ve played the street organ in public now for about 375 hours.  Doing loose math, this means that I’ve turned the organ crank about 1,000,000 times.  This means that the monkey has raised its arm about 1,000,000 times.  Looking back on it I realize that the Monkey was my first automata.

At the present time I have almost completed the third automata in the Jim’s Gym  series.  I’ve built two Scissor Lifts and am finishing Big Wheel Lift #1.  As I build one of the things that I strive to do is “a good job”.  I don’t want to be building anything that I need to apologize for.  I want to create “strong and reliable” automata.  

When I created the monkey automata I did strive to do a good job…I wanted the monkey to be problem free.  I tried to be careful.  In hindsight I “did good”.  After 1,000,000 million cycles the monkey is still going strong.  And each automata that I create is better than the last.  I am learning how to create strong and reliable automata.

When I show folks the automata that I am creating a common question is “how did you get started doing this?”.  In hindsight I realize that it’s The Monkey That Made Me Do It!

Take a look at the monkey in action.


This is where I create.

The studio has been located in many places over the years.  At this time I’ve got a really good situation located in the third bay of a three car garage.  Here in Southern California that means that I can work in the studio almost year round with the door open.

The primary power tools are a drill press, band saw, scroll saw, 8″ disc sander, shop vac, planer, and a router.  Many many hand tools.  I am finding myself working with tools some of which I’ve owned more than fifty years…and even a couple that my father has passed on to me.  Good tools are a good investment.

I’ve got a rack of perhaps 50 bar clamps…you can never have enough clamps.  I could go on and on about the tools…however the important thing about the work that I do is not the tools, though they are important.  The really important thing is “attitude”.  

  • Do I really care about what I am doing?
  • Am I angry…or calm?
  • Am I in a rush…or is there plenty of time to do it right?
  • Do I have a clear vision of what I am doing?
  • Do I love what I am doing?

I practice Tai Chi for an hour each morning…a good way to start the day…and an indicator to you about my outlook on life.  I design my creations myself.  Frequently I build a design two or three times before I create “the first one”.  Keeping the studio neat and picked-up comes naturally.  Keeping tools in good repair is important.

Here is a YouTube video tour of my studio.  Enjoy.

It takes some of us longer to catch on to certain things.  Me, for example.  I used to think that 1″ marbles (called 1″ Shooters) were all alike…all the same.  When I constructed Scissor Lift #1 I designed and created for 1″ diameter marbles.  And what I found was that some of my marbles would not roll properly…they were too large or, most often, simply not round.

As Scissor Lift #2 is nearing completion my wife and I spent an hour or two exploring and purchasing a variety of 1″ Shooters.  We do this on eBay and have a good time.  The world of marbles is colorful and interesting.  In this case we were wanting to purchase marbles that would go with the color scheme of Scissor Lift #2.

The marbles arrived (faster than expected) and were wonderful.  Of the four different varieties three would work well from the perspective of color.  I started rolling them through Scissor Lift #2 and found that about 80% of the marbles would get hung up and would stop rolling.  As I pondered this situation I realized that I had already known it, but had not realized it.  

The first batch of marbles that I bought were all from one source.  About 80% of them would not run through Scissor Lift #1.  I assumed that it was simply the batch…the manufacturer.  Now what I realize is that it is apparently all marbles that vary a bit in size and that are perhaps a bit out of round.

My conclusion is that if I want 1″ Shooters to properly roll through my machines I need to be designing for 1-1/8″ marbles.  So…I’ve been modifying and at times rebuilding portions of Scissor Lift #2 so that all 1″ Shooters will roll through.  It’s a good thing that I enjoy what I do…else this would be work.

Since Scissor Lift #2 was entirely painted this is a set back in terms of time.  After I modify/reconstruct I’ll need to paint.  Will add about a week to the creation of Scissor Lift #2.  

Life offers many paths.  I believe that at this time I am on my “last” artistic path…the creation of kinetic art in the form of street organs and automata.  I hope to still be creating automata twenty years from now.  Kinetic art has been a passion for me over the years…and now I have the opportunity to focus and create.

The automata that I’m creating at the moment are in a series I call “Jim’s Gym”.  These are rolling marble machines that are designed in the form of gym equipment.  There is a gym club member operating each machine.  These machines will each be a numbered machine in an unlimited series.  These machines begin life in my mind (I design all my automata) and come to life through my hands in my studio.  I am assisted by my wife Cheryl and our golden retriever Cami.

As I write this post I am in the final moments of the creation of Scissor Lift #2.  You see it over my left shoulder.  The biggest problem that I am trying to solve right now is ‘how to market my automata’.  Ideally I would find a gallery that believes in my creations…a gallery that would like to represent me exclusively.  Least desirable but most probable is that I will be marketing my automata myself.  Not a bad thing…not a good thing.  Rather than marketing I would rather be creating.